A Method To Sadness
Local playwright's tale of Russian theater family benefits from imaginative production.
Thursday, March 7, 2002
Photo: Erik Peterson plays Sasha and Mary Ann Schaupp plays Fania in a play about Russian theater circa 1930.
Fania opens with a photo projected via PowerPoint on the back wall of the stage--a slightly surreal picture of a scene from another stage. It is clearly another play in progress, but the rustic appearance of the set, the multi-mirrored Baccarat-like reflections of light, and a certain fantastical aspect to the actors'' poses make it unclear whether this is a formal or homemade set. It appears to contain fairytale characters that may have populated our childhoods. The image beautifully foreshadows the theme of Fania itself.
The play was written by local playwright (and former Weekly writer) Nina Solomita, and adapted to the Cherry Center stage (note creative use of PowerPoint) by director Conrad Selvig. Fania is a fictionalized drama inspired by events that took place between 1906 and 1934 in the life of a Russian Jewish actress who studied in the Moscow Art Theater with the legendary Konstantin Stanislavski (inventor of the vaunted "Method" for actors).
Set on a minimalist stage with backdrop scenes of early 20th century Russian tableaux, photos, and woodblocks scanned from a variety of sources, the play deals with the existential decisions of the lead character, Fania Voliniev Verkhotseva. In the context of the personal, artistic, practical, religious, and ideological challenges of the Russian Revolution. Fania eventually must choose between her art and her family.
Mary Ann Schaupp plays the young ingenue Fania, who ages progressively throughout the play. Schaupp brings intensity and a touch of bravado to the role of the driven, aging actress, wife and mother. Fania''s earnest, energetic, and self-sacrificing husband, Sasha, a Jewish soldier in the Russian Army, is played by Erik Petersen.
Emotionally slight at first, an engaging scene between Fania and Stanislavsky, played by Keith Decker, provides a sure sense of the play''s pathos. Decker''s timing sustains the scene''s tension, holding its defining conflict with alacrity and practiced charm. Similarly, brief moments between Fania and Olga Knipper (Jennifer Forbes)--a well-known actress of the period--consistently provide a sense of relief, depicting genuine, spontaneous warmth, and, we hope, friendship between the two women.
Ironically, it is one of only two relationships without any sense of competing interests. The other is between Fania and her wisely sure and soft-spoken accordion accompanist, Scrioja (Len Parry), who strongly contrasts the sycophantic and self-important Comrade Perepelkin, played with much flair by Garland Thompson.
If the love between Fania and her husband Sasha knows no bounds, it is Sasha''s sister, the responsible, hard-bitten, plain-speaking, Sonia (very ably acted by Helaine Harris), who will endeavor to act as Fania''s bourgeois foil, censor, and conscience. She cannot conceive Fania''s artistic calling nor the compelling love within the family.
A poignant and symbolically rich scene between the husband, wife and their child Kolya, nimbly played by the imaginative Jorel Vaasborg, focuses the play''s theme of disjointed hopes, abandonment, and loss. The production is completed by a clever score (grand, symphonic sweeps followed by soft Russian folk songs, calling up images of romance and political struggle), and dramatic lighting across the spare angularity of the stage.
What makes the play work is the thoughtful, considered writing, which captures with care the sense of martyrdom or impending catastrophe that marked the dreams and humanity of the age. If you remember Nora in Ibsen''s play The Doll House, and have tried to imagine what may have happened to her character if the play had continued, or wondered about the literary legacy of the era that may have been opened by Ibsen with the play, then Fania may provide an idea of one of the glimmering moments that serve briefly as an answer.
8pm Fridays and Saturdays, 5pm Sundays until March 24 at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, 4th and Guadalupe, Carmel. All tickets are $15. Call 626-6796 for more information.